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This summer's music charts are dominated by pop girl underdogs

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Summer is for the girls. If you take a look at the music charts or just turn on the radio, you'll hear some of music's biggest pop stars on repeat. Of course, there's A-lister Taylor Swift, who continues to dominate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN DO IT WITH A BROKEN HEART")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause I can do it with a broken heart.

RASCOE: But there's also some bops from a new crop of rising young stars, whose girly, bratty, even nasty hits are stuck in our heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESPRESSO")

SABRINA CARPENTER: (Singing) Thinkin' 'bout me every night. Oh, isn't that sweet? I guess so.

RASCOE: Like Sabrina Carpenter's "Espresso." To talk to us about these top trending summer songs and the women behind them, we're joined now by NPR Music editor Hazel Cills. Hey, Hazel.

HAZEL CILLS, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So we played a little bit of "Espresso" by Sabrina Carpenter, and she's one of the female artists who are really popping right now. What is drawing people to her music?

CILLS: Yeah, this is really a summer for, like, pop girl underdogs. Sabrina is a former Disney Channel star, and she's one of a handful of young women pop artists who are - kind of been working on the fringes of the industry. Like, maybe they've never had a Billboard Hot 100 hit before, or they haven't had one in a long time. And then all of a sudden, like, they're cracking the charts. It's kind of this moment that's very '80s. It's like they're really dedicated to crafting these super fun bops. And Sabrina actually has two songs in the top five right now. This is "Please Please Please."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE")

CARPENTER: (Singing) Please, please, please don't prove I'm right. And please, please, please don't bring me to tears when I just did my makeup so nice.

CILLS: She's releasing her sixth album, "Short N' Sweet," later this summer, so she is definitely someone to watch.

RASCOE: OK. And on her sixth album - so why are Sabrina and all these women cracking the charts now?

CILLS: You know, I think it's that fantasy aspect, sort of escapist element to their music, but it's also platforms like TikTok, you know, where artists can kind of build these really hyperspecific niche audiences, and that can kind of catapult these songs into the charts in a way that's a little unprecedented. It really gives, you know, smaller artists a chance to have these big, viral moments. Like, let's take Chappell Roan and her song "Good Luck, Babe!"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LUCK, BABE! ")

CHAPPELL ROAN: (Singing) ...Baby. You can kiss a hundred boys in bars, shoot another shot, try to stop the feeling. You can say it's just the way you are, make a new excuse, another stupid reason. Good luck, babe. Well, good luck, babe.

CILLS: Chappell put out her debut album, "The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess," last year. You know, but she's an incredibly magnetic live performer. And, you know, that song is this explosive synth pop number. It's a little Cindy Lauper. It's a little Kate Bush. And it's about asking someone to face the truth about their sexuality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASTY")

TINASHE: (Singing) I've been a nasty girl, nasty. I've been a nasty girl, nasty. I've been a nasty girl, nasty. I've been a nasty, nasty, nasty. Is somebody gonna match my freak? Is somebody gonna match my freak?

RASCOE: What other artists in this cohort of stars have gotten a boost from TikTok?

CILLS: Someone who really stands out to me is the artist Tinashe. You know, she first broke out a decade ago with her hit "2 On." And now she's landed her highest-charting single since 2014 with her song "Nasty." And one of the things that has really made this song pop is that there was, like, this kid on TikTok who posted a video of himself dancing to the song. And, like, TikTok did its thing, and people really got into the dance, and they started posting videos. So that's really helped it.

But then there's also this, like, instantly memeable quality to this song. You know, Tinashe asks the question, ss somebody going to match my freak? - which it's like, that question is now a meme this summer, this idea of, like, who's going to really, like, get me and get down with me? And so kind of like "Espresso" and "Good Luck, Babe!" it's the song that has this message and this life that's just way bigger than just the song.

RASCOE: Well, who's going to really get me is a nice way of saying match my freak.

(LAUGHTER)

CILLS: Nice translation.

RASCOE: Is there something that unites these young stars' approach to music?

CILLS: Yeah. I mean, I think, like, right now to be a super successful pop star, you kind of have to cater to market trends and really, like, be a generalist. I think what unites all the artists that we're talking about is that they're really digging into what makes them unique, their humor, their sexuality and being committed to a singular style that they develop and honoring the niche audiences that they've gained instead of, like, constantly scaling up. And, you know, someone who's really excellent at that is this English artist Charli XCX, who just released her sixth album, "Brat," earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "360")

CHARLI XCX: (Singing) I went my own way, and I made it. I'm your favorite reference, baby. Call me Gabbriette. You're so inspired, ah, ah. I'm tectonic. Moves, I make 'em, shock you like defibrillators. No style, I can't relate. I'll always be the one, ah.

CILLS: You know, that's an album full of confident dance pop songs like "360," which we just heard, but it also has her reflecting on her insecurities in a very kind of unpolished way. She has a very loyal audience that has kind of made that album into a micro phenomenon that's spawned this viral idea of what people are calling brat girl summer, which really celebrates this idea of being as messy and wild as possible. And so what I'm seeing this summer is the more pop artists lean into what makes them unique, even if it's a little bratty or even if it's a little nasty, you know, the more successful the music is.

RASCOE: That's NPR Music's Hazel Cills. Thank you for joining me.

CILLS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.